The Audi S3 is available unlike most of its rivals is available in three guises - hatchback, cabriolet and saloon, which is designed to appeal to a wider audience than before.
Sizing the Audi S3 up
The obvious one is the Volkswagen Golf R – the S3’s sister car, but there is also the ridiculously quick Mercedes-AMG A45 and the all-paw Ford Focus RS and a better-rounded Honda Civic Type-R, which have all shaken up the established order. It was the fast Blue Oval's arrival that has prompted Audi to tweak the S3 along with alongside facelifting the A3 range - with the fast hatchback/saloon/cabriolet gaining an additional 10bhp, leaving it short of the Focus RS and A45, but ahead of the Golf R on the performance stakes.
It may seem ludicrous to some, to allow such a power deficit against convincing rivals, especially when you add the 365bhp BMW M2 into the mix, but it allowed Audi Sport to introduce a facelifted version of the monstrous RS3, which blows the AMG, RS and M2 out of the water with the 394bhp it produces from its five-cylinder engine.
The A45 arguably owes its existence to the highly successful template Audi established a decade and a half ago with the original S3, and while it isn’t in the same league as the upstart’s prodigious pace (that's the RS3's modus operandi), it does nudge everything in the right direction.
Overall, the car weighs 70kg less than before, mostly due to the lighter MQB platform now worn underneath, which also affords the Sportback, saloon and cabriolet its extra wheelbase length and (thanks to a thrown-forward front axle) a more favourable 59 percent front, 41 percent rear weight distribution.
As before, the S3’s four-wheel-drive set-up doesn’t benefit from a Torsen-based centre differential (or funky crown gear) that graces other Quattro models, instead sharing the updated Haldex multi-plate clutch system branded 4Motion elsewhere in the group.
Stick with the standard spec S3, which gets all the equipment found on a S line trimmed A3, plus 18in alloys, lowered sports suspension, a sporty bodykit, a quad-exhaust system, a Nappa leather upholstery and heated front seats. Decide you want the S3 in more practical saloon or captivating cabriolet forms, and you'll find 19in alloys and adaptive suspension fitted as standard. Those intent on making their S3 more meancing can opt for the Black Edition trim, which adds tinted rear windows, lots of gloss black exterior trim and a Bang & Olufsen stereo system. However, only the hatchbacks and the saloon are available in this trim.
Should an Audi S3 be subtle or outlandish?
To look at, possibly more understated than it’s ever been. Whip off the badges and there’s only the quad pipes and silver wing mirrors to differentiate you from any one of the other high-spec A3s circumnavigating the M25.
Sports seats aside, the branding is probably all that distinguishes the cabin, too. But that’s fine – the quality of the finishing, trim materials and all-round attention to detail is immaculate.
In keeping with the ambience, there’s little fuss about starting up the four-pot, either. The pedal action is light, as is the engagement of the slightly snaggy manual gearbox. The only initial surprise is just how much breathing space the turbocharger requires.
While not chronic, the lag is more noticeable than might be expected from an engine reputedly delivering peak twist at just 1800rpm; a mashed throttle in third at 30mph will have your eyes rolling up considerably quicker than the turbine starts spinning.
Fortunately, the car’s accelerative quality thereafter is fierce enough to wipe the memory clean. Presumably the ratios are a mite longer than in the optional seven-speed S-tronic, and that leaves the keen peddler with a fervent 3000rpm to make 55mph turn into 85mph.
Once in its stride, third proves an all-purpose whoosh of a gear, and the S3 is best appreciated in it, pulling scandalously hard from corners. However, ignore the temptation to light up all the LEDs on the boost gauge and the car settles back into a familiar four-ringed repose and settles for the weighty stability of a cross-channel ferry.
Largely this is because it’s still impossible to get to grips with it through the steering wheel. The variable-ratio rack is devoid of feedback whether over-assisted in its Comfort setting or over-weighted in Dynamic, and because it doesn’t push back properly, you lean into it awkwardly, like a man feeling with his hand for the bottom of a muddy pond.
This unwanted detachment dovetails with the S3’s inherited aloofness, characterised best by its superior refinement and a firm but ultimately receptive ride quality.
So hushed, handsome and capable is it that a sensibly moderated bout of pressing on – the quick, neat and courteous kind – is an austere and one-sided experience.
For the most part you stay sealed in a typically unstressed Audi cocoon, impervious to the weather, noise and sweaty exertion, but equally disconnected from the deeper physical business of enjoying yourself.
There are plenty of reasons to, given that all the usual accolades apply. The S3 scores typically highly in handsomeness, usability, refinement, comfort and, with the Sportback especially, practicality.
Its emissions are not criminally high and although 40.4mpg is hopelessly optimistic (we averaged around 26mpg), the car is relatively cheap to run considering its potential performance. And if, for you, the latter means steadfast grip and cosseted thrust beyond all else, then our subjective issues with it are mere blemishes on another polished product.
However, for us, its ultimate inability to inspire a genuine fondness for its dynamic prowess is an obstacle. Once upon a time, this would have been overcome by shopping for a lower-rent hot hatch – something we’d encourage you to still consider now, given what’s currently available below £33k – but that’s not the case now. Mercedes-AMG's A45, Volkswagen's Golf R, Ford's Focus RS and BMW’s M2 have provided serious alternatives to the Audi S car way. None are free from flaws, but all are better endowed to accommodate thrill seekers’ expectations than the S3.